A Globe-Trotting Journey into the Mystical World of Sufism

A Globe-Trotting Journey into the Mystical World of Sufism

My introduction to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, happened by accident when I stumbled upon a book in a bookshop in Boston called The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan. The year was 2007. I was recently married and was backpacking with my wife in order to fly to Europe from the East Coast for our first international adventure. When I saw the book in the shop it immediately called to me but I was reluctant to buy it because I was in the middle of a trip. We were in Boston for about a week, just finishing a music tour with our friend NormanOak and getting ready for Europe. I kept thinking about the book and eventually decided that I couldn’t go to Europe without it.

We spent six weeks across the Ireland, the UK, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I read the book on every flight, every train ride, every down moment. I couldn’t get enough of the knowledge that was contained in this book. The book wasn’t even a book, it was a series of lectures from the early 20th century by an Indian mystic and teacher who was responsible for bringing the Sufi philosophy to America. As a musician and a person with a spiritual calling, this book was the first time I’d seen my two passions paired together in such a profound way. The message from the book caused me to completely change my view on writing music and the role of the human voice as an instrument.

It also introduced to the Sufi worldview which was transformative in itself. Having been somewhat raised on a family bookshelf of Taoist teachings as teenager, Sufism felt familiar yet fresh and new. The mystical ideas about finding a direct union with God, Nature, or the Universe (however you want to call it) were things I had considered and integrated from Taoism but the idea of using music as the ecstatic tool to get you there was something I hadn’t ever considered before.

Since then, I’ve read many more books by Inayat Khan and other Sufi masters. I’ve had various moments of crisis where I thought that maybe my path needed to put me into some sort of monastery. The Sufi path was the one that brought me the closest to that kind of dramatic life change. Taoism felt too remote and distantly forgotten in history. Sufism felt alive, active, beating like a drum or a heartbeat. Calling me.

2008 saw my wife and I living and working at a spiritual retreat center (The Omega Institute) in Upstate New York that was founded on Sufi principles and situated about 30 miles away from a Sufi retreat center that was run by Inayat Khan’s son and grandson. Even though I never made it out to the Sufi center, some of my friends did and brought back ideas and wisdom. Sufi teachers sometimes visited my retreat center and unloaded little bits of knowledge. Also I was reading from the incredible library at the retreat center. I was soaking up everything I could get.

At the end of 2008, I found myself having a conversation with a Sufi in Switzerland regarding a rare recording of Inayat Khan speaking and performing music from 1908. Through our email conversations, the Sufi man dubbed me “City Dervish” because my heart was calling to me from two worlds, East and West, modern and ancient, secular and spiritual.

This brings me to the beginning of this particular adventure which starts in a bar in Chicago in the winter of 2011. I had been divorced for a year and living in Chicago for two. I was having another one of my “mid-life” spiritual crises. Or maybe I was just following my spiritual calling which usually feels like a crisis in the face of modern culture. I was about a week away from leaving the States for a three month journey across Europe, part of Africa and the Middle East. My spiritual quest was not on my mind though, love was. I was infatuated with a girl. Like many other times in my life, the original inspiration for the quest was not the real reason I needed to go on it. I was flying to Europe to pursue love though I wouldn’t find it where I was looking.

Anyway, I was in a bar with some friends whose band had played just played a show. I was introduced to their friend Nedda and we were chatting over drinks. I told her I was going to be in Turkey in a few months and she casually told me her dad was a Sufi who visited Turkey often. I nearly spit out my drink. I had never met anyone outside of retreat centers that knew about Sufism. She was as surprised as I was because I understood what she was talking about. Our mutual surprise led to a meeting the following week between her father and I. This also started my Sufi journey that would lead me from Chicago to California to Spain to Morocco to London and finally to Istanbul.

Two weeks later, I had hitchhiked from Chicago to Oakland in a half broken down van with four crust punks and a dog. Even though I gave them money for my share of the gas, we obtained fuel by going to gas stations and asking people to fill up a red gas container. I watched them do this over and over again in awe. I couldn’t believe this actually worked. They said they’d been doing it for years.

Crust Punks

From Oakland, I caught a ride 90 miles south to Watsonville where the Sheik of the Mevlevi order of Sufis in the United States lived. Nedda’s father had introduced me to the Sheik, Kabir Helminski, over email a week earlier. I arrived and we had a nice long talk while preparing food. Then he and his wife ate dinner with me and we talked more about the Sufi path, Translating Rumi, life, and the spiritual inner world. Finally, we went up to the yurt where they have their Sufi gatherings. There were about 15 others already there, sitting in meditation. We proceeded to sing, talk, tone, discuss, pray, and drink tea. It was a really good experience. When we did the zikr, (the Sufi ceremony of becoming absorbed in the rhythmic repetition of the name of God) it was so powerful and moving. I have been saying la ilaha illa’llah (the Arabic prayer “there is no God but God”) in my mind for three years and this was the first time I heard it or spoke it aloud in a group. We chanted it over and over and the drums came in. You can’t help but vibrate, rocking back and forth with the rhythm of it. There was a dervish turning in the middle of the circle. We changed and started chanting the Arabic word for God, simply Allah. The intensity grew. I was tripping out. Blissing into altered states, head rush from the constant singing, numb lips and face which usually happens to me during chanting like this. It was really good. And then it ended. We calmed down with tea and talks with the different members of the group. This was my first taste and I was thirsty for more.

Sheikh Kabir Helminski and his wife

From California I headed to Spain. As I said, I was pursuing love but that aspect of my journey is so long winded that I will gloss over it. After two weeks in Madrid with no love to be found I headed south towards Granada. With no specific intention in mind, and letting the Universe guide me to adventure, I discovered a couchsurfing profile for a Sufi Ashram in the mountains outside of Granada. They said they only hosted women but I emailed them anyway because what were the chances that I was randomly discovering a group of Sufi’s so soon after my last encounter in California.

Sure enough, my intuition proved correct. They invited me to come visit and spend the night. I caught a noon bus to Granada. The Ashram was in another town close to Granada called Quentar. I got to Granada and had no idea where to catch the bus I was looking for. It didn’t leave from the bus station I arrived at, so I decided to wander around Granada looking for it. I knew the schedule and I had a couple of hours to find it.

The Ashram

I walked around the city center, enjoying the sights; cathedrals, shops, and a beautiful view of the mountains in the background. I was enjoying the city but I was getting worried because the place I was looking for was nowhere to be found. I didn’t see it on any bus or train maps and it was getting close to time to leave. I eventually went in to a hotel to ask the concierge where this place was. Through our language barrier, he showed me on a map that I was literally one block from where I was trying to get to. In the flow! I walked over and payed 1.55 Euros to ride to Quentar.

Axel and I with the mountains behind us

The ride was about 30 minutes and was a very scenic mountain ride. We were going up and up through these little mountain villages. Eventually we got to Quentar and I met Axel. I had no idea what to expect about the people here or what kind of place it would be. Axel was from Germany. He had been living in Spain for 20+ years as a disciple of Effendi who was the Sheikh here. Axel showed me where I would be staying, the home of Esmerelda, another disciple, from Italy. I dropped off my bag and then we walked further up the mountain to the house where Axel lived. Axel occupied the bottom floor of this building and Effendi and his wife lived in the upstairs. I talked and had tea with Axel for an hour or so. I heard many stories of Axel’s life and also tales of Effendi. After tea, it was time to go up to the gathering.

We went upstairs where we met 5 more people. Effendi is also German and his wife is maybe Spanish. Then there was Esmerelda who was from Italy. Esmeralda had a non Sufi friend named Carol from Granada who was there. There was another woman who was South American and also another man who I didn’t get to talk to.

I introduced myself to the group and the gathering started. The whole ceremony was a prayer circle. There were two drums, two lap steel guitars, two singing bowls (one of which I was playing) and a strange round metal percussion thing. We did zikr which included chants and mantras from different cultures including Sufi, Hindu, Christian, Native American, and more. One mantra flowed into another over the music. The Sheikh spoke before the zikr and then afterwards. It was all in Spanish so Axel translated most of the evening for me. It was a nice time. Effendi has a very radical and interesting perspective that combines many mystical traditions and ideas. This is pretty unusual for a Sufi Sheikh. He told many stories including one about a local holy man who had died in 2001 named Santo Manuelo. It was a very nice night that ended with Esmerelda taking me down to her place with Carol and showing me my room.

The next morning we woke up and did yoga. We had tea and breakfast and then decided that we would drive out to see Santo Manuelo’s house and shrine. I was interested. It is said that while he was living, hundreds of people would come each day to receive blessings and healings. When we got there, it was nothing like I imagined. It was a small grouping of handmade buildings sitting alone out by a road in the mountains. It was so primitive. Pieces of scrap metal were placed on top of walls made of sticks and plaster. It seemed more like Afghanistan than Spain. We walked up in the cluster and there were other people there visiting. Some had brought white flowers to add to the shrine. We went in this house to see Manuelo’s room and I realized that there were still people inhabiting the home. There was a woman cooking food and little kids running around. I couldn’t tell if they lived there or we’re just maintaining the place but it was very surreal. It felt like we’d just walked into a strangers living room unannounced and they were totally fine with it. We looked at the shrine and then we went into another smaller one-room building made of sticks which is where Manuelo used to sit and do his healings. It brought to mind baby Jesus and the manger. There were Christian pictures all over. We sat there for a long while and then decided to go. I couldn’t tell if I felt any high vibrations in there. I definitely didn’t feel the presence of any spirits so who knows if Manuelo is still hanging around as they say.

The Shrine

I rode back to Granada with Carol. Over the next few hours, she gave me a very nice tour of the city. I saw pretty much everything. We walked through the old Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods and we saw the last remaining Mosque in the city. All the others had been destroyed when the Christians kicked all the Jews and Muslims out of Spain hundreds of years ago. We saw the Alhambra which was the Muslim Sultan’s fortress and castle. We stopped for a while and ate tapas and had a few small beers called cañas.

Alhambra

When I got back to Quentar it was getting dark. I found my way up the mountain to the Sheikh’s house. I was supposed to meet him for tea. I came in to find him with his wife and two disciples. I joined them and we sat for four hours and talked. I mostly just listened. Effendi had many great stories and talked a lot of his recent shift of spiritual perspective. His recent trips to India and interaction with Sadhu’s had led him to radically open up his worldview and break away from his Sufi lineage. He lost many disciples in that process but his perspective became a lot more open which we both agreed is a good thing. It’s hard to put into words the effect this talk had on me but something was definitely happening. I started to feel like I was tripping on drugs, my mind literally expanding while I witnessed it. My worldview was expanding as Effendi talked of his worldview expanding I felt content and confident. I have never met someone who spoke from such a similar spiritual perspective as me. I was overjoyed as he described my “No Rules Life” philosophy in his own way.

   Sheikh Effendi and I

Effendi also spoke of this Moroccan woman called Lala Alu, who he described as being a living Saint or holy person. He told me stories of her ability to heal people of life threatening illnesses and eventually he told me how to find her. I was excited at the possibility of going down and meeting such a remarkable person. The way to find her was going to be challenging. He said I would first take a ferry to Tangiers. Then I would take a bus that would go south along the coast for three hours but after the two hour mark, I would tell the bus driver to let me off at the intersection of a dirt road. I would walk down the dirt road for half an hour until I hit a wall with a lake behind it. I would go left at the wall and walk into the village. I would find only one person in the whole village that spoke English. He was Aziz the barber. I was to ask for Aziz the barber and tell him Effendi sent me and he would take me to Lala Alu. After he told me these directions, I was absolutely terrified. Was I really going to do this? Was it possible? Would I be lost forever in the Moroccan wilderness, a country that I had never been to and where I didn’t speak the language? I was scared and nervous but also excited because Spirit had already brought me this far and I was prepared to go into full submission of my destiny.

I went to the other room to use the internet to buy my train ticket to Gibraltar. When I came back, I was surprised to find that Effendi had called down to Morocco and made arrangements for me. All I had to do was take the ferry to Tangiers and then take a bus ride down to Laroche and I would find her son waiting to pick me up. Fears extinguished. All this seemed to be happening so effortlessly. I seemed to have stumbled into the path I had always wanted to find and it was taking me on all kinds of mystical adventures. Effendi gave me gifts for Lala Alu and then I left to get some sleep before my 7am train ride to southern Spain.

I got a ride in the morning from Esmerelda. She was kind enough to wake up at 5am and take me into town. I hugged her goodbye and got on the train and promptly fell asleep for 4 hours. I arrived in Algeciras around 11 and walked out in search of the port.

After a funny encounter with a fake ticket man, I eventually found myself at the ferry entrance waiting to get my passport stamped. There were two other English speakers waiting that looked my age, so as we entered the ferry I started talking with them. One guy was 23 and was from Toronto. The other was 27 and from Montana. Both had recently met in Spain and decided to travel through Morocco together for a month. We enjoyed a ferry and then a bus together, reflecting on the joys and challenges of traveling and the spiritual awakenings it can encourage.

Tangiers

Upon arrival in Tangiers, we were overwhelmed by local Moroccans trying to help us do everything from finding a hotel, a bus, or food, to buying hash and cocaine. It was hard to take it all in at first, but eventually I just started responding with kindness and jest. They were persistent in trying to help us and also get some money but I didn’t mind. After a quick sandwich with my new friends, we parted ways. I was to continue my strange journey down to the living Saint and miracle healer, Lala Alu. A Moroccan man helped me buy the correct ticket and then use his phone to call Effendi and arrange my ride. I then rode the bus south for a few hours.

I went down deep into Morocco and suddenly I was Muslim. I was known as Yasin. I did ablutions. Starting at 5am, I prayed 5 times a day, in a mosque, in Arabic. I said bismillah before doing anything. I ate bread and beef and chicken with my right hand. I never used my left. I drank delicious tea. I covered my head. I said hamdulillah because I was thankful for this experience and because things were good. Moving in the flow.

Laroche

I was in the house of Lalu Alu for two days. It was a strange place that I never really understood. Something between native African village and Western country village. The whole extended family lived in a compound together. It was one story and I was discouraged from wandering around the “house” because of the separation between men and women. All the old grandmothers had tattoos on their faces which reflected some non-Muslim native traditions that had blended with the very strict Islamic traditions that were practiced here.

Four brothers in Lala Alu’s house

I explored the village and went fishing on ate boat and the women cooked the fish we caught. The town I was in was known as one of three pilgrimage points in a very specific Islamic pilgrimage route. I was told by Effendi that there was a Saint buried in the village and that if you prayed at his shrine and then two others in other parts of Morocco, your mind would be unlocked and you would receive something like enlightenment.

There was no running water or plumbing in the village and I wasn’t allowed to touch anything with my left hand (the unclean “wiping” hand). This made life as a lefty pretty challenging. Even though I had heard that Lala Alu had cured someone of a terminal illness, I didn’t ask her for any miracles. Just being there was miracle enough. Only one person in the whole village spoke English and he wasn’t around much so most of my communications were through hand gestures. I learned Salah (the physical, mental, and spiritual aspect of worship that all Muslims do) and prayed with the family five times a day.

Family Mosque

The first night, I went to sleep on a couch in what seemed to me like a living room. I had a very vivid and memorable dream where Lala Alu came to me and she took me around to everyone in the village and introduced me so I wouldn’t be a stranger. In my dream I could talk to and understand everyone I met. Then she took me to the Saint’s shrine which looked like a giant blue glass sculpture. We prayed and I touched the glowing blue glass and then I woke up to the sound of the call to prayers.

Grandmother

After the second day, I took a bus to Fes so I could get a plane to Brussels and continue the journey that I had already planned for myself. I regret that I didn’t get to see much more of Morocco and it’s holy and historical places. I was given a ceremonial blessing and a sheep skin rug as a parting gift from Lala Alu. I was flying on Ryanair which meant I couldn’t take anything but one carry-on backpack, so I wrapped the rug around me like a skirt and put my coat on over it. The woman at the ticket counter asked me what I thought I was doing but let me get away with it. I eventually gave the rug to a friend in Belgium for safe keeping because I knew I had many more plane rides ahead of me and the rug would not travel well.

              Rug skirt

Fast forward a couple of weeks of normal backpacking adventures through Brussels, Berlin, and London, and I arrived in Istanbul. I already had a strong feeling about Turkey before I ever got there. For months before I left, all signs pointed to the fact that something good was going to happen. Starting from when I met Nedda and her Sufi father who hailed from a lineage that went back to Konya, Turkey via California, then to the Sufis I met in Granada who connected me to a woman here in Istanbul named Neşe. Effendi gave me a book in Spain that told the story of an Englishman who goes on a spiritual journey to Istanbul to learn the path of The Way under a Sufi teacher. All this helped to reinforce that idea that this was not accident or coincidence but that the Universe was conspiring to take me to very specific places to intentionally transform me spiritually.

I showed up in Istanbul on a Friday morning. I had a couchsurfing host to stay with named Tutku but I couldn’t meet him until 9 at night. I walked around all day long with my heavy backpack. The first day, I wasn’t feeling totally confident. Like Morocco, basically everyone in Turkey is Muslim and no one really speaks English. Istanbul looks like a Moroccan city, too. It’s pretty Western but with some shanty parts and some chaos thrown in. This first day, I walked aimlessly and felt a little lost and alien. I finally up met up with Tutku around 9 at night and he was instantly warm and friendly. A 25 year old musician, we could relate. He took me to his favorite pub in Taksim and we had a few beers with a bunch of his friends. It felt like a pretty normal night especially after the good times in pubs in London I had just had. We took a cab back to his place and my first day in Istanbul was over.

Tutku and I

Istanbul is a unique city because it exists on two different continents, Europe and Asia. The next morning we set out to the Asian side via ferry. Tutku was going to get a tattoo finished so I went with him. We spent the morning walking around and then hanging out in a private tattoo studio. Then I departed from Tutku to meet with Neşe (pronounced Neshay). I had a two hour walk up the coast of the Asian side before meeting Neşe at the Üsküdar ferry station. I was introduced to Neşe through the Sufi group I stayed with in Granada and in email, she said she would take me to a Sufi gathering on Saturday night.

Neşe arrived. She was Turkish, head scarfed and described herself as an “old woman” though I knew she was under 45 which is not an old woman! We hurried off into the chilly Istanbul night. Before the gathering we made a quick stop at the Cultural Center to see a few songs performed by a traditional Turkish musical group. Nice. Then, she took me to an event I will never forget. We showed up at a door, an unmarked door that I would have otherwise assumed to be an apartment. We were greeted by friendly Turkish smiles and handshakes. There was some interactions between Neşe and the guy in the entry way and then we entered the tekke. A tekke is “a building designed specifically for gatherings of a Sufi brotherhood.” Imagine a large room completely carpeted and walls adorned with framed images of Qu’ranic verses in Arabic. The ceilings seemed a bit low which made it feel like we were underground, in some kind of sacred cave. The room was full of Muslims; women with head coverings, men with white hats, and children. This was the largest gathering of Sufis I had ever seen. I felt slightly out of place at first but warmed up to the situation as I started talking to people.

Neşe and I in the tekke

I sat with Neşe and we talked for a bit as we waited for the Sheikh to come into the room. Once he arrived it was time for formal prayers, known as Salah or Namaz. I learned how to do this when I was in Morocco, so I prayed in the Muslim way with the rest of the group. Then the Sheik, Mohsan Baba, took his place and it was time for the zikr to begin. Normally in Islam, men and women never pray in the same place but these Sufis have their own interpretation of what is proper so the room had a nice mix of men, women, and children. The room, a long rectangle, was arranged in rings of people around the Sheikh in the corner. We all received lyric pages in Turkish and Arabic and the singing began. There were 4 drummers and maybe 30 voices. A zikr is commonly understood as the practice of remembering God and the Sufi prayers are in the form of songs. The Sheikh started and everyone followed and then eventually the drum rhythm came in. It sounds simple, but actually it’s quite intense. The drum beat reinforces the rhythm of the chant and everyone is rocking back and forth, swaying side to side in blissful union. I was in the tekke from 9pm until about 5am. Over those hours, things got intense. The prayers rose and fell, sometimes the singing got so loud that we were shouting. For hours, we chanted and sang and experienced a taste of ecstasy. I no longer felt alien. I was exactly where I always wanted to be. Exactly where I was meant to be. I was with my brothers and sisters, together dedicated to praise and remembrance of the One Thing, the AllThatIs, or Allah as they say in Arabic. This was the most powerful ceremony I had ever experienced and they told me afterword that it was a particularly tame zikr because the Sheikh was sick and wanted to end early! The end of the gathering was a nice coming down with casual conversations as the Sheikh interpreted dreams for individuals in the corner. Neşe and I exchanged stories for a long time and we became good friends by the end of the night.

The Sheikh interpretting dreams after the zikr

Afterward, a family gave me a ride back to my host on the European side of the city. Once I realized they spoke English, we talked all the way back. I learned a little more about the Sufi group that I had met and what some of them do for a living. We stopped in Taksim to get some “wet hamburgers”, a Turkish speciality. It was 5 or 6am and the streets were totally packed with cabs and pedestrians. One of the Sufis told me that the only thing open this late were Pubs and Tekke’s and that was funny to me. I showed up at Tutku’s place super late but he didn’t seem to mind too much. I crashed on his couch because he had some friends over.

The next morning I slept in till about noon and then spent most of the day with Tutku and his musician friends hanging out in the house, listening to music, and sharing stories and eating homemade Turkish snacks. It was rainy and I didn’t feel like walking around in the cold wet city so I stayed in until dinner time and then it was time to walk to the next neighborhood over to change to a new couch surfing host named Engin. Engin’s place was way different than Tutku’s. Tutku lived in a garden style apartment that was appropriate for a student or artist, the kind of place I’m used to. Engin on the other hand lived in a super modern, super swanky apartment with his wife. The first night at his place we had an impromptu couchsurfing party. He had two other guests, these two college girls from Germany. They arrived right after I did. Then, Engin’s friends came over with one of their couchsurfers, a really nice girl from Beirut, Lebanon. There were 8 of us total with 4 countries represented. We spent the night talking and sharing stories and listening to different pop music from Turkey and Lebanon.

Impromptu Couchsurfing party

Monday came and I was supposed to meet Neşe at her school to talk English to students but it was cold and rainy and I was feeling tired and a little sick so I cancelled and stayed in bed most of the afternoon doing internet and couchsurfing stuff. Then I left at 5 and met Neşe for dinner. She wanted to introduce me to her American Sufi friend named Logan. We went back to Neşe’s place where Logan was waiting. We quickly got into a great conversation as Neşe chimed in while cooking us a really delicious dinner of Börek and a flaky desert. Logan was from LA and a little older than me. He became a Sufi in New York and now lives in Istanbul working at a University. He had just finished a Ph.D. and his area of study was natural healing techniques so we had a lot in common and lot to talk about. After dinner Neşe and I, along with her British couchsurfer went to another tekke in the Old City of Istanbul to see a Meshk ceremony.

Meshk is another kind of zikr and this one included Whirling Dervishes. We entered the tekke, this one more of a proper mosque, and took our seats in the back viewing area. This time we were just spectators as apposed to part of the congregation. A group of white hatted men sat in the room in front of us singing prayers in Arabic and right in front of us, the dervishes came in and started their turning ceremony. It was about an hour long and was very beautiful. It was very ritualized with specific parts that had different meanings. It was awesome to see the real thing right in front of me. As we left, we walked past the tomb of a Saint. I stopped to look into the window and took a moment to pray to the Saint. I felt the first taste of the kind of energy that comes from this type of prayer. This was another night that I wouldn’t forget. Neşe invited me to come stay on her couch with her other couchsurfing guest which was great because I had many questions after seeing the Meshk and I wasn’t ready to leave.

The next day was Tuesday and after a delicious breakfast and conversation, I went to an art class with Neşe. There is a Turkish painting technique called Marbling and Neşe is learning it with a Master Marbler artist. I went to the art studio and had a fun time. Aside from learning how to do this type of paining and getting to make an image, I also found out that this teacher, Hikmet Barutçugil, knew the Sheikh in California, Kabir, and had a photo of the two together in a little book! Far out!

Blue Mosque

After art class, I took my first solo trip into the Old City and spent the rest of the day on a Holy pilgrimage. I visit somewhere around 25 tombs and mosques in a constant state of prayer. There is something about praying to Saints and masters… It’s hard to explain. I never knew this feeling until that day. Maybe I never really understood prayer until this day. I spent the day wandering. There are so many holy sites in such a small area that I really didn’t need a map. I was totally transfixed. I was content but not blissed out. I was not ecstatic but I was also no longer concerned with worldly things. It occurred to me that maybe this the kind of state the those old-school wandering dervishes and mystics lived in. I felt like I could have continued this forever. I just walked and walked and prayed and prayed and took a photo here and there. The power and energy coming into me through these Saints and masters was awesome. I was in such a high state. I could feel it coming in and out of the top of my head. Like I said, it’s hard to explain and really the description is pointless. It’s a state worth pursuing and is something that I will definitely plan trips around in the future. At the end of the day I was still in such a high mental state and I felt like I was a spiritual crossroads, a feeling that I would experience again on other pilgrimages where a choice needs to be made: Do I return to the normal world or do I continue the spiritual journey into oblivion? I chose to return.

One of the many shrines of Saints

Wednesday was my last full day and it was a great day to end my trip. I got up early after a good sleep and trekked my way over to the Asian side to visit Neşe at her school. Neşe is an English teacher at a Muslim high school and she invited me to come visit her classes and speak English to her students. I only meant to go for two hours but I had so much fun that I stayed for six. Her classes on Wednesday are girls and these girls were very, very excited to see me. All of them were about 16 and they said they said that they had never talked to a foreigner before. Neşe had told them I was coming so they brought delicious homemade food for me. They were ecstatic to talk to me in their rough English. Neşe facilitated many of the conversations. They had a ton of funny questions for me. It was really fun. I haven’t smiled so much in such a long time. So many classes, so many sweet and excited girls. It was hilarious. I felt like a celebrity as Neşe had warned me I would. They loved me, they loved my eyes, they loved my stories and they wanted me to stay, or so they said. When I got home I had 12 Facebook friend requests so I must have left an impression! Neşe said they would probably be talking about this day for a year. So funny. It was a great experience that I will never forget. Neşe and I visited one more tomb on the Asian side and then we said our goodbyes at the ferry station. We had connected so deeply and genuinely and it would be sad to leave a new friend.

A day of smiling

By the end of the day I was feeling totally lovely. I had my last Turkish meal on the way and then I went to Engin’s place to pack up my stuff. Neşe suggested that I come back and visit during Ramadan which seems like a good idea.

From Turkey I went back to London for a weekend and had my final Sufi encounter. After my day of prayer in the Old City of Istanbul, I felt like I was coming back down into the normal world. My trip was naturally preparing me to return to real life. Nothing would match the all night zikr at the tekke in Istanbul. Istanbul was the contact point between me and the Universe where I was the stone getting thrown into the pond and every other event on this trip was a ripple in the Universal pond, emanating from that moment in time.

I met up with a very modern gathering of Sufis in an apartment in London. This was through a connection I made back in California. The gathering of a dozen people were followers of Sheikh Kabir and they got together on a regular basis to share spiritual ceremony. The experience was pleasant but tame compared to the ecstatic bliss I experienced in Turkey. We sang and chanted and shared tea. I made some new friends and they gave me a Sufi book called the Forty Rules of Love which I read on the rest of my trip and on way back home. It’s title and it’s story seemed to sum up my adventure; seeking love in people and finding it in God, the Universe.

London zikr

My three month journey left me transformed by my experiences. I continue to walk the thin line of the “City Dervish,” caught between two worlds and never able to fully commit to one. I’ve come to realize now that this is my path and that I am meant to learn how to accept both aspects of life, material and spiritual, ancient and modern, into myself and grow from this knowledge. This journey was only one chapter in a life-long lesson but it taught me so much about friendship, music, and the rewards of following your dreams and submitting to your destiny. Alhamdulillah.

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